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Free to offend?

March 7, 2011
The poppy

Imagine for a moment 2 young white men outside a mosque in Saudi Arabia.  As people are entering the mosque to attend a memorial service, the 2 men set fire to a Koran and drop it to the floor, where it burns away to nothing.  At the same time the 2 men shout various slogans along the lines of, “Muslims burn in hell.  Muslims – murderers.  Muslims – rapists.  Muslims – terrorists.”  I think we can all imagine the outrage that would be felt, and expressed, by those present and anyone who heard about it.

Now imagine the uproar if, after being charged with Public Order offences, one of the 2 men were to be acquitted and the other convicted and fined £50 plus a £15 ‘victim surcharge’.  To add insult to injury, what if it turned out that the Saudi government were supporting the convicted criminal to the tune of nearly £800 a month and had to continue paying him.

Nothing like this would ever happen though right?

Today at Woolwich Crown Court in London a young man was convicted of burning poppies at an Armistice Day event in Kensington last November.  He burned the poppies at the end of the 2-minute silence held at 11am, during which he and others had been chanting such things as, “British soldiers burn in hell.  British soldiers – murderers.  British soldiers – rapists.  British soldiers – terrorists.”  And, funny old thing, he was fined £50 plus a £15 ‘victim surcharge’ for this offence.  He currently receives nearly £800 per month in state benefits.  He is a member of a group calling itself ‘Muslims against Crusades’ (MAC).

So, the question here is was the outcome the right one?  Was it right to charge this man with a criminal offence and, if so, does the punishment fit the crime?

We live in a democracy, where the right of an individual to express themselves and protest has long been protected.  Protected, in part, by the very British service people against whom this protest was made.  As we have seen recently, this freedom cannot be taken for granted in most countries that identify themselves as Muslim.  The event at which this man was protesting was a memorial to British and Commonwealth soldiers who have given their lives since the start of the 20th century in order to protect the freedoms enjoyed in Great Britain today.  Many of those soldiers being commemorated were Muslims themselves and served proudly and well.

As a general rule I support the right of anyone to protest and express themselves in this or any other country.  I have put my life on the line as part of the defence of these and other freedoms and no doubt will again in future.  Having said that I don’t think this particular action was justified in the context in which it occurred.  This was not a legitimate protest, aimed at those responsible, it was a cynical attempt to disrupt an annual memorial service going back nearly 100 years in order to protest current Government policy.  It was then conducted in a deliberately provocative manner, attacking the 2 main symbols of the memorial: the silence and the poppy.

I believe that it was right to charge this man with a Public Order offence.  He wasn’t trying to protest government policy or the actions of British Forces, he was trying to cause harassment, alarm or distress to as many people as possible.  He was charged and convicted, in a free and fair trial.

Did the punishment fit the crime then?  It’s hard to see how he could have been punished any more, within the law.  An offence under section 5 Public Order Act is a fairly low-level one, with correspondingly low penalties available.  The offence is usually used to deal with rowdy drunks and the like.  There are other offences within the Act that could have been used which attract slightly heavier penalties, but without the detailed facts it’s hard to know if they would have been more appropriate to charge.

The bottom line here is that a religious extremist and his chums, who claim to represent a religion of ‘peace’, set out to cause distress to people commemorating the sacrifices of men and women who have stood and been counted in the defence of a country which allows them the right of free expression.  He was rightly charged with an offence and punished as far as the law and sentencing guidelines allow.

This man and his fellows do not represent Muslims any more than the EDL represents me.  He is an extremist, so far wrapped up in his own worldview that he doesn’t even recognise that there could be another way to see things, let alone see any merit in other points of view.  In his case his extremism is based on religion and I would go so far as to say that the majority of extremism is.  After all, there’s no arguing with someone who has no evidence.

What this really tells us is that ‘hard cases make bad law’ and that there’s nothing so stupid or offensive that someone, somewhere won’t do it.  People eh?

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011 21:54

    I think thats pretty fair comment and it is a difficult one. While I support the work of the legion I have felt the need to shun the poppy for a couple of years since they excepted money from the BNP. I felt this devalued everything that the poppy stood for, I have given to other service charities and I am sure the poppy will return to my collar soon.

    But the idea of burning such a potent symbol as a protest is one that borders on religous hatred and was only designed to inflame and anger and I find very distasteful. The cost of a good curry and beer in a fine doesn’t seem adequate, but then those are the onions we have to like if we wish to have freedom of speech and protest.

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